Photo by Noah Forman
Boy it doesn't feel like Friday night," said Hal the dispatcher, looking at his call board.
"No, number 37, there's nothing going on right now. He looked at the clock.
"Oh yeah, KC1352 the Citywide time is 7:26 pm, seven twenty six PM, gentlemen. . . .ah, and ladies. Sorry Rose, sorry Maria."
Citywide #37 hung up his mike. That was that. No harm in asking. He was all keyed up to do a little work, and here there was nothing going on. The town was dead, the cab stand at the Lenox was dead, the sidewalks were empty. Not a soul in sight with money in their pocket and an urge to travel. For a half an hour he'd been number three, stuck behind a Checker and a Black and White. RELAX he said to himself, letting the air out of his lungs, and the starch out of his shoulder muscles.
TIME TO RELAX AND SMELL THE ROSES, NUMBER 37. He got out from behind the wheel and inspected the lineup. Seven cabs in line. All reading. Three Heralds, two Globes, a Star and a Wall Street Journal. One poor soul in a Checker was half-in and half-out of the line. #37 walked over and told him that things were at a dead standstill. He moved on downtown.
The city was taking a vacation, floors were getting swept, the trash baskets full of printouts were getting emptied, and lights were going out. Another day, said the city, clustering its reflecting mirrors near the horizon, catching a last look at the sun setting' behind the Belmont hills. He sat behind the wheel again and waited.
Time to do nothing, pull the newspaper over your head and loose yourself in the latest troubles in Washington.
"TOP CITYWIDE AROUND THE BRIGHAM?" asked the radio, "SECOND?" "BRIGHAM CITYWIDE, CITYWIDE AROUND THE RED CROSS, NINE CITYWIDE FOR THE BRIGHAM"
Hal was looking to unload his blood shipment on some new driver. A two buck three block job and you had to fill out all the package paperwork. And drop on a particularly dangerous area of Huntington Avenue.
"COME ON OUT THERE. ANYONE FOR THE BRIGHAM?" No one for the Brigham. No one for the Lenox, no one for anywhere. The airport was calling him, a greasy sausage grinder with onions and peppers in the holding area was calling him. About eight-thirty there would be a cluster of evening flights. He slipped the Plymouth into drive and started to ease out. A horn blared. He looked into the mirror and it was Geno, leaning on the horn and laughing. Mr. Leather was sitting behind the wheel, double-parked, counting his money. He was always counting his money. Loved to roll it up in big chunks and run a rubber band around it. "So what's new?" He kept counting, finished up with the roll and made a note on his pad.
"Nudding" he said, yawning hugely. "What you got, nudding?"
"Ooh" he said, making a face. "I'd quit, if I were you. Hey'd you see that?" he said, snapping his fingers.
"What?" Pete said, looking around. A dark-haired girl with a long pony tail was going into the hotel.
"What a bod on her. Yeah,you ought to find something profitable for yourself. Gotta hustle if you want to make the big bucks. The big money."
Geno would chase jobs from anywhere in the city, had some kind of deal with the dispatcher. 107 was always picking up the juicy jobs. The latest rumor was that he had boosted the power of his radio from five to ten watts, knocking everyone else down to a garble when he bid for a job.
"The Bay is dead, my good man." He said, "I'm going for the airport and troll for some big time work. We on for breakfast?"
"I saw sixty five today out on the street. He's out of the detox. Looks good. Kinda. He's walking and talking, anyway. Let's bring him along."
#37 shook his head. Trolling at the airport . The Independents, who were all armed with something, hated being scooped. After you killed an hour in the taxi pool waiting your turn for a call, you didn't take kindly to someone who "just happened to be going by" getting your fare. But that was Geno. If you are big and have a pipe under your seat and come from East Boston, you go trolling. He went off, headed downtown.
He looked at his watch. 8:02 PM. Oh for a flat-rate, something that would take him out to somewhere like Framingham or Worcester, easy out, easy back. A leisurely joint to a far off corner of the world, a secluded suburban driveway with a dog barking and a worried husband raising the shade to see if that was his wife arriving, #37 opening the door, a happy customer handing a fresh new twenty and a nice new ten and saying keep the change driver, thank you very much.
There was the usual dice game going on down in Raymoor Park on the fringe of Bromley-Heath. The Mayor's new crime-fighting floodlights were just starting to come on, one by one. Johnny P. was acting up a storm, shilling for Lonnie and Calvin who were philosophical about Johnny P’s winning streak. Soon the crowd got big and all the numbers were being covered with little piles of wartom ones and piles of loose change. Johnny P. was hot, and any minute now he would be cold as ice. "Hey Cal old buddy, tell you what I'm going to do, oh man is this terrific!" said one of players, counting his money, snapping out each single. "This is easy money. Do you know I don't make seventeen dollars a day at that so-called job of mine? I'll give you a break, old buddy, I'll double my bet on old number three, but no more, man. I don't want to put you out of business."
Louann paced among the bystanders, a tall good-looking woman puffing on a cigarette. She could manage a tight smile now and then but she couldn't talk much tonight, couldn't deal with the bastards anymore.
"Hi there baby" said this kid in a plaid shirt and sunglasses. "How's things?" She gave him a frosty smile.
"They suck" she said, and walked away, only to come back and push her way through the crowd. Lonnie was counting some of the receipts, sitting on a milk crate. "Hey Lonnie, give me your tool, man. I need it." Louann said. "Take it." he said, briefly glancing back at her. She reached under his shirt at the small of his back and got his knife, a battered black switchblade, and dropped it in her purse. "Hey look, babe." he said, "Don't start anything heavy willya? I got too much to do here to bail you out again."
"Don't worry about me" she said, and took off walking toward Huntington Ave, walking tough, ignoring the usual by-play.
"8:30 PM CITYWIDE TIME. ANYONE AROUND THE BRIGHAM?" said the radio, speaking for the first time in about twenty minutes. Why not, he thought. 37 had given up on the Lenox and was cruising down by the Boston Common. The stand at the Ritz was full-up, the streets empty. There was a chance that the Brigham job might be something decent. Now and then about this time there was a Roslindale nurse calling in to go home.
Anything is better than this. He picked up the mike. “Citywide #37”
“Roger, number #37 Pick up a package at the Red Cross at 229 Huntington Ave and go over to Peter Bent Brigham. P.O. 2456, ok?" and #37? When you're done, call in. I'll have something else for you, I think."
"Roger." Thrown a bone, he happily dialed the hard left onto Charles, and floored it coming through the Garden-Common gate, maneuvering for a good left lane position with a yellow Dodge Dart and an old Caddie, taking the Beacon Street turn a good couple of car lengths ahead of everyone else. It was time to get uptown and waste more of his time.
The Brigham E. R. was chaotic, and it was about ten minutes before he could find a nurse who would sign for the A-negative blood in its refrigerated container. What the story was behind the blood he would never know. When he came out, fragments of high-flying cirrus were burning themselves out and going dark in the western skies. High up a jet and its contrail caught the last rays of sun. He leaned against the cab, looking around. It was peaceful out here. He got behind the wheel and just had his hand on the mike to call in when someone said something. There was someone in the back. A black woman in her thirties.
"Grove Hall" the woman said. "Do you know where that is?"
#37 knew all too well where it was. His mouth was dry, he was perspiring. He picked up the mike.
“#37. "I have a fare. Grove Hall."
"Everybody off the air" said the dispatcher. "37? Have them give you a street address."
"34 Alpine Street" said the woman, leaning forward and opening the little window in the partition.
"We need to know" said #37.
"Yeah sure." she said sourly and slid back in her seat. "You gonna take me or not? I'm in a hurry."
"34 Alpine Street, Grove Hall." "Time of arrival?"
"Approximately fifteen minutes."
"OK number #37, keep your radio on, let us know when you drop, and when you clear."
The protocol for calls into high crime areas since last fall was to notify the police, who would supposedly shadow the cab while it was dropping. Most drivers thought it wasn't working. Dead ends off of Grove Hall and Bromley Heath were the worst, where even the company said no, too many Citywide cabs mousetrapped in there. You drop, and then there’s a Grand Prix blocking you in. Two men with a gun. He wondered how he would react to his first gun, wondered if he would give them everything or go nuts like mild-mannered #39 did, blasting down Blue Hill at ninety miles an hour with the helpless gunman in the back seat, going from accelerator to brake to hard left to hard right, bouncing him around between the partition and rear window until he began screaming for mercy, heading finally for the police station at Grove Hall until he finally lost control of the cab at the corner of Seaver and smashed into a fire plug. He got a two week suspension. He rested his hand lightly on the meter lever. He didn't want to take her into that shooting zone, and yet he knew that if she filed a complaint, he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Besides, she could be okay and she needed a ride. He slammed it down hard. $3.10 and ticking.
"107" said the dispatcher, "Find a phone and call me, Geno." There was a fair amount of chatter on the radio as he was driving. Now that he was deep into the twilight zone off of Seaver, traversing these vast burnt-out bombed out areas in South Roxbury, the town was waking up. All the businessmen were now shaved and showered and coming down in the elevator, out to dinner at the Four Seasons or some little place on Newbury street. Calls in the North End and Beacon Street, a nice job from Copley to Framingham that went to someone else.
"Hey" said the lady in the back seat, opening up her window again, "What are we going this way for? Take this next left will you?"
He took the next left, into a dark canyon. And the next right, like she told him to, through a wasteland of empty lots. A stop sign. There was a man standing on the corner. His cab was just moving off when the back door opened and slammed shut. #37 hit the brakes and flipped on the dome lights. The man was bearded, in his thirties. He blinked and threw up his hand to block the glare.
"Shut the damned light off!" the woman yelled. #37 shut the light off.
"What's going on?" he said. There was silence. #37 could hear the raspy sound of his own breathing. By the dim light of the streetlight he could just barely make out the names on the street sign overhead. "Waverley Street" ran crosswise. He was on Sumner Avenue. He locked both of his doors and picked up the mike.
"37 Code nine"
"Just a minute" said the dispatcher. "Everyone off the air. Was there a code nine out there?"
"What's this code nine bullshit?" said the woman.
"Easy, Lorraine, easy." said the man, "I'm Burton Johnson, driver. You're a little apprehensive, aren't you?" said the man in a deep resonant, cultured voice. You could trust a voice like that with your last dollar, but not here, not at Waverley and Sumner at nine o'clock on a Friday night.
"Did she tell you she was picking me up here?"
"No" said #37. "You are a surprise. I'd like you to leave my cab."
"My apologies." he said, and laughed quietly. "Oh my, Louann, you really take the cake. Driver go ahead." he said, "My apologies for upsetting you. We're going over to the Red Top on Alpine Street. We've got a little business there. It's only three blocks up to Blue Hill and then a couple blocks north. We'll pay you something a little extra for the trouble."
"OK, #37, come in"
#37 thought about the situation. "Expect drop at Alpine in five minutes." "Everything all right, #37?" "Fine." He took a deep breath, left a little squirk of rubber behind and drove. Waverley was potholed and then turned into a heaving sea of cobblestones. Weed choked lots and old railroad tracks, great old warehouses and lofts in the darkness. It deadended on Blue Hill Avenue, empty as the plains of Mars, blazing in sodium yellow.
He looked to the left and the right and then in the mirror and saw the woman counting some money, and the guy looking at something with a penlight. On the corner three blocks up, the lipstick red swizzle-stick jittered in the blue martini glass over the front of the Red Top Lounge. Quite a few people were hanging around in front. There was no police car in sight, but he could see a yellow hood sticking out of the darkness on a side street on the opposite side of Blue Hill. The cab's marker lights were on, the headlights off. Then the headlights flashed on and off twice.
|photo by Noah Forman|
"#53" The sound of that call blasted, and he hit his volume button fast. #53 was very close.
"Picking up on that #99"
"Roger." He pulled out and headed north. The second car that passed him going the other way was another Citywide cab. In a flash of light he saw it was Geno, looking grim. He glanced in the rear view mirror and saw it blow a cloud of rubber, cut through a hole in the divider and come about. His passengers were looking back too. The cab on the side street rolled out as he passed by. #37 slowed down to let both of them catch up with him. His passengers were whispering.
"Driver, there won't be any trouble, will there?" the man asked, up at the partition, again. He looked in the rear view mirror and there were four headlights there. He felt around under the seat and found the pipe where it was supposed to be.
"No" said #37, "There won't be any trouble."